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Lauren Anzaldo
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006

Regardless of your location on the political or geographical map, chances are pretty good that breakfast this morning included a banana. As Dana Frank asserts in her book Bananeras, “Bananas are as global an industry as you can get.” Emboldened in part by that fact, women banana workers in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and Colombia have adopted a militant form of unionism that makes gender issues central to the international labor movement.

Frank traces the emergence of women’s consciousness, beginning in the Honduran Union of Workers of the Tela Railroad Company, or SITRATERCO, in the mid-1980s. Employing a variety of tactics, the women of SITRATERCO managed to form a Women’s Committee, develop a range of workshops, trainings and conferences to educate and empower their companeras, and got themselves elected to rank-and-file and executive offices in the union. Meanwhile, they also linked up with other women and male allies in the Latin American banana industry to help spread their gender-based approach to labor organizing and to strengthen banana and agricultural unions throughout the region. “We women are in the process right now of learning how to go about changing our cultures,” declares one worker, secretary of women for the Coalition of Latin American Banana Workers (COLSIBA). “For hundreds of years, our culture has always told us that unions are for men only, in a culture in which all the organizations are made up of men.”

The solidarity and determination of the mujeres bananeras (banana women) have helped to bolster the Latin American labor movement during a time in which neoliberal trade agreements threaten to push all workers out of the relative safety of unionized workplaces and into deadly ghettoes of desperate impoverishment. Assisted by a consortium of labor federations, European NGOs, churches and social justice groups, the banana women are studying globalization from the point of view of the women who are hit hardest by such realities as long grueling hours, the use of toxic agrochemicals, and cuts in health care and paid leave. “We’re not against regional integration; we’re against its imposition. Another model for development is possible,” unionists pronounced at a conference entitled “Banana Women Taking on Trade Liberalization.” For the mujeres bananeras, land and resource appropriation under the FTAA and Plan Puebla-Panama echoes of the ongoing appropriation of their bodies and their labor by men.

Homegrown approach

While promoting a seemingly feminist critique of labor and the global economy, the mujeres bananeras do not call themselves feminists, nor are they directly informed by the middle-class feminist movement that began sweeping Latin America in 1981. The banana women use terms such as “gender equity” and “women’s work” to describe the topics they tackle, which include everything from self-esteem and domestic violence to the social construction of gender and occupational health problems suffered by women. The banana women face entrenched machismo in their homes and workplaces, yet they have sought out and cultivated the support of male allies. Their pragmatic, homegrown political approach –– and their success at disseminating it to women banana workers spread throughout Central America and Colombia –– gives them power and strength.

Bananeras is a people’s history, peppered with quotes from the mujeres bananeras explaining and analyzing their work. In researching the banana women over the course of four years, Frank lived with the workers, visited their packing plants and union offices, and attended their workshops and conferences. Her snapshots of the female banana workers, taken during various gatherings and reproduced throughout Bananeras, lend an intimacy to the book that make it feel more like a family photo album than a stuffy labor history.

In this sense, Frank’s book takes the same form as much of the mujeres bananeras’ activism: that of camaraderie, sisterhood and familiarity. The network of friendships they have established throughout Central America and Colombia enable them to work more effectively and serve to rejuvenate them when their work in the banana packinghouses and in their unions becomes overwhelming. The banana women also welcomed Frank into their fold, and her closeness to them and respect for them emanates from the pages of the book.

Throughout, the women whose stories are told in the book imbue it with a sense of hope for the future. Bananeras is at once a record of what has happened to and through Latin American women banana workers, a call to action and a source of inspiration.

South End Press, 2005